If you can imagine an auditory pantomime, you will be in the peculiar world of Nathalie Sarraute. A pantomime in reverse, where instead of tiptoeing action and gesture, you have vocables, so to speak, with their fingers to their mouths. In pantomime, the spectator “understands” a dialogue or soliloquy from the signs made by the performer (“He is afraid,” “He is arguing,” “His feelings are hurt”); in the mime of Nathalie Sarraute, an invisible action or plot—that is, a relation—is understood from snatches of overheard speech, the word in some way reverting to its primitive function of sign or indicator. And just as an “Ouch!” or a “Pow!” in a silent movie has a greater sonority than any “Ouch!” or a “Pow!” recorded on the sound track of a talkie, so the action in Nathalie Sarraute emerges from the murk that conceals it with a degree of visibility that is almost immodest.
The action is simplified, conventional, classic—a Punch and Judy show, Keystone comedy, or Pearl White cliffhanger—having to do with the seesawing of power in a human group, which can be as large as a mob or as small as a single integer. Some creature is being chased; he makes a narrow escape; they are after him again; he tries to hide, flattens himself against a wall, melts into a crowd, puts on a disguise; they catch him, tear off his false whiskers; he begs for mercy, uttering pathetic squeals. It is always the One and the Many, even and most emphatically when the delicate power-balance trembles and oscillates within a palpitating individual heart. In the outer world, alliances and ententes, protective networks, more or less durable, can be made, but within the individual heart there is a continuous division and multiplication. What counts statistically as one person is a turmoil of constant side-changing, treachery, surrender, appeasement; in that sanctum nobody can be safe even long enough to get his breath.
At the outset, Mme. Sarraute’s reader, finding himself in this strange and unquiet territory, may be somewhat bewildered. He hears voices talking but cannot assign them to bodies with names, hair-color, eye-color, identifying marks. It is like listening to a conversation—or a quarrel—on the other side of the thin partition of a hotel room; you long to rush down and consult the register. But there is no register in this hotel; no telltale shoes are put out at night in the corridor, and the occupants of the room next to you keep changing just as you think you have them placed.
At the opening of The Golden Fruits, a couple were reviewing an evening out: “You’re terrible. You could make an effort just once. I was so embarrassed.” Husband and wife, obviously. You knew it was the wife talking because in French the endings of the adjectives and past participles make the sex of the speaker clear. More important than their difference of gender, which only indicated that they belonged to the great majority of couples (nothing “queer” about them), was the evidence that here was a pair who kept up with the latest cultural currents—currents which would soon turn into a veritable maelstrom engulfing the newly launched novel “everybody” was talking about.
At the opening of Between Life and Death, we are again in a literary milieu, but now it is not the novel but the novelist we find. In person. The voice we hear is male, of course—we can gather that right away—and it is describing its methods of work. “‘I always write on the typewriter. Never in longhand.”‘ At once the reader is aware of a familiar smell—the incense of fame. That man is not just talking to himself. He is on an imaginary stage of some sort, a confident projection of his own ego into the world. Obligingly and doubtless not for the first time, he “acts out” the process of creation. It is a demonstration, like glass-blowing. There he is at his desk, frowning, pursing his lips, shaking his head, screwing up his eyes (to get perspective); he tears the sheet of paper out of the machine, crumples it into a ball, throws it on the floor (“No, it won’t do”), puts in a fresh sheet of paper, starts over. Over and over. As often as ten times in a single sitting. It goes on like this day after day: “I reread. I tear out the page. I crumple it. I toss it aside.” Suiting the gesture to the word, his arm rises and falls, folds and unfolds, like the “arm” of a machine, illustrating the mechanics of production. And his wife adds her voice. Yes, that’s the way he works. His study is a mass of waste paper. He throws the rejects on the floor. Some days he comes out reeling. He doesn’t hear you when you speak to him.
No doubt remains. He has to be a successful writer. If he were a failure, nobody would be interested to hear how he worked, whether he wrote by hand or on the typewriter, how much he revised, what he did with his first drafts, and so on. And the wife’s two bits’ worth clinches it. When you live with a great man, a perfectionist, you are resigned to his precious litter, his bouts of inattention. Her dulled voice implies a public, not just the immediate listeners who constitute a silence around him, but what is known as an audience. The form, then, taking shape in the first chapter, is the interview. Not a single interview, with a sympathetic critic or TV host, such as you would find described in a realistic novel, but dozens, hundreds, all interviews boiled down to their purest essence.
Such interrogatories are the modern index to fame, above all in Europe where the publication of a book is the signal alerting a mass of professional questioners with pencils and note-books, tape-recorders, microphones, cameras. A factory whistle has blown in the communications industry. Amateur questioners too, rising from behind a palm in a hotel lobby, approaching after a lecture, concealed in trains, behind the white coat of the family doctor, the starched uniform of the nurse: “Where do you find your ideas?” “How did you get your start?” “So you make your corrections with a ball point? You have a ‘thing’ about fountain pens? How interesting.” If it is true that every citizen today believes he has one book in him (the story of his life), then the legion of interviewers, eager for the recipe, the trade secret, is potentially equal to the whole of humanity. The situation in its automatism and inherent repetitiousness is comical, and the author who takes it seriously, swells with its importance, is a fool, like the poor clown onstage talking about the final “mystery” of creation.
Yet already in the opening chapter there is a fly in the ointment. A small voice detaches itself from the reverential silence. It belongs to a woman, and that woman is a writer herself. A budding writer, apparently, because she is so timid. But she too knows what it is to suffer and doubt, tear sheets of paper off the typewriter, crumple them into balls, start over, to lie awake at night. Of course there can be no comparison; she is not famous; nobody could want to know, except in mockery, about her habits of work. Frightened by her own daring, she shrinks back into the circle of the others. A second budding writer, an “I” this time, is pushed forward, struggling; denying any literary ambitions, he flees to safety in the crowd, refusing to listen to the encouragements of the famous man, who remains in the center alone.
In Mme. Sarraute’s work, you often find a circle surrounding a single figure, an “it” in the middle, as in a children’s game. To be chosen “it,” however, is not as enviable as it looks at first. Isolated, you can become the butt of tormentors before you know what has happened; the rules of the game have been changed without a word of warning. You have been betrayed by the “ring” around you who have led you on, maneuvered you into the spotlight by flattery, and now start closing in, abetted by your own need of praise and reassurance, the inner traitor, always seeking to join them. This encirclement befell the eponymous hero of The Golden Fruits, but we were not privy to the novel’s sufferings as it was bounced about like a pinball in the game of taste-making, unable to escape or come to rest on a fixed point, its own selfhood or identity. It was a mute like the medallioned oak door of The Planetarium, which could not disclose whether it was beautiful or ugly or so-so. But in the present novel, although we start as onlookers, amused or repelled by a comic spectacle, we are eventually precipitated into the tragic arena of a consciousness, where the “it” stands alone.
The famous man of the first pages, not unaware of his danger, believes he can beat the game by splitting into two, one part remaining in the center bathed in a soft light while his other part, the common man, denying any special talent (it’s just a dreary industriousness; application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair), seeks to find a place in the dark of the auditorium. That simple half of himself would like to know, just as much as they, what it was that made him a writer, set him apart. Well, he says modestly, resuming the interrupted “interview,” maybe some of it was hereditary. In the genes. He had a Breton grandfather who was a tomb-stone-cutter in his youth—quite a character; you could almost call him creative, the way he improved on people’s epitaphs with inventions of his own. On the other side, he had Italian blood; that grandfather was a shepherd. And as a child he himself had a passion for words. Yes, it went that far back; as long as he could remember, he was playing by himself with words.
Then (a new chapter is starting) the reader is aware of a sort of air turbulence: a disconcerting shift has taken place. Of time, place, persons? He cannot yet make out. The voices are using some of the same words and expressions but they no longer sound the same. Now it is a “she” who is large and famous, and “he” has become youthful, humble, small. He has sent her a manuscript, and she has replied with a letter—such an astounding, generous letter. Reading him, she has discovered that they speak the same language; it is she, not he, who should be grateful—for the pleasure he has given her. A fellow spirit! At last someone he can talk to without the usual precautions. He can tell her anything. As a child, she too must have played with words. He is sure of it. Just like him, in his little crib, with the bars on the sides, pronouncing words to himself at night. They were his first toys. And when he was a little older, there was one word in particular…. Too late he recognizes the trap; her pale eyes are mocking him. She is not a fellow-spirit but one of the others, disguised, sent out to disarm him.
Here the novel begins to unfold its complexities. Who exactly are the others? Instead of the audience the deluded creature thought was out there, it is a ferocious jury of writers that is confronting him and disqualifying his claim to “belong.” An inner circle has replaced the outer circle, and now, rudely manhandled, his words quoted with jeers, he finds himself on the perimeter, unable to gain admittance except on strict and contemptuous probation. Yet these persons who are hustling him into a uniform, thrusting him into the lowest class of aspirants, are not simply writers more securely established than himself. They seem to have some connection with the public, whose judicial arm they are. Or the public is their judicial arm. Maybe they are critics—an unnatural hybrid of writer and reader.
It is not only the others mustered in a circle who have undergone this alarming metamorphosis. He himself is changed to the point where you would barely recognize him. If he did not hark back to the old business about his childhood and what predetermined his “election” to write, he could pass for a simple unpretentious being. It is they who have twisted his words, to use against him. He has only answered the questions they asked him as honestly as he could. He does tear out and crumple and start over. It was true about his Breton grandfather and his unhappy childhood and the game he played with “héros, héraut, Hérault, erre haut.” Truth is no defense. By their fruits you shall know them. Many people have had an unhappy childhood, an erratic ancestor. Who does he think he is?
That naturally is the central question, which the book’s central figure is the last to be able to answer. If he says he is nobody, it is a lie. False modesty. If he says he is “somebody,” they will laugh at him. No one, when the searchlight has picked him out, can wriggle out of that impasse or rise above it. The egregious clown of the first chapter loses his outlines, multiplies, subdivides, becomes all writers, bad, good, and indifferent. His fatuity is seen to be merely an aspect of fame. Insofar as we are famous, we are fools, and fame is something we cannot exactly help but which is done to us with or without our eager cooperation. The fame which makes a writer stand out in high relief from the crowd exposes him; hence his protests about being no different from anybody else, untalented, a drudge. These protests are usually sincere, though never believed, and when a writer has the folly to complain of fame, he is smiled at, like a rich person talking about the “curse” of having money. The writer wanted it, did he not? He worked for it. Probably what he really wanted was glory, which, unlike fame, is not a market commodity.
Still it seems to be a fact that the writer is like everybody else—only more anxious, more preoccupied with himself and with the state of health of that alien part of him which is his talent, the part that has the least to do with him and that is, alas, the most in view. Yet something of the sort is true for everyone. The important part of ourselves that constitutes our definition, our outline, cannot be seen from the inside, even if it can be felt occasionally in what we think of as our best moments, when we are “in form.” The experiencing subject is unsure of his identity, which is objectified for him by others, though in a fragmentary and unreliable way. I cannot trust the mirror for instance to tell me whether I am beautiful or ugly; nor can I altogether trust the compliments—or the reverse—of friends and family, which send me running back to the mirror for confirmation. This ceaseless back-and-forth, commonest among people known as “sensitive” but universal at least in youth, is epitomized in the ordeal of the writer, whose existence, as writer, must be repeatedly confirmed by a public, so that, to quote Mme. Sarraute’s title, he is always hanging between life and death.
That it is a life-and-death struggle is evident from the metaphors used in literary journalism. “I murdered it,” says a reviewer complacently of the latest novel. “Lethal,” say his admiring friends. “Slaughter. A massacre.” “Vitriolic.” An author, reading over a passage he has finished, groans to himself: “Dead. Dead. Dead.” That in fact is the sole criterion an author employs to judge his own work, as though he were holding a mirror up to the mouth of an unconscious patient. “Fine result,” comments the alter go of Mme. Sarraute’s writer-hero. “It’s dead. Not a breath of life.” “How do you mean, no life?” cries the anguished hero, who imagines he has given his best, all his treasures, to this text. “Why?” “Oh, you know me,” the other replies. “I’m quite simple. Very primitive…between ourselves two words suffice. As coarse as these two: it’s dead. It’s alive. And it’s dead. Nothing comes through.”
For the writer it is not a mere question of success or failure. He hangs by a thread over nothingness, annihilation. He has put, as they say, so much of himself into his book. And there is no one he can rely on entirely, not the public, his publisher, his literary sponsors, not even his alter ego, that faithful companion who is called into consultation whenever a chapter or a passage is “ready to show.” He cannot be totally sure of the objectivity of the fidus Achates. Maybe there is not enough distance between them. The other may be partial to him on account of their old relationship. Or he may be infected by his masochism, his sickly doubts, and be over-severe with him. Maybe there is too much distance. What if the other is too conscious of the reviewers out there, lying in wait? The interior critic has to keep a foot in that camp as well; otherwise he would be of no use to him. But wholly trust him or not, this friend, second self, arbiter, is all he has in the world, and he clings to him, damp and trembling, readying himself for the verdict.
It is what he feared, “knew all along” was coming. A death sentence. Can there be no reprieve? At first the other is final—no hope. Junk it. But at length he is persuaded to take a second look. Together they assess the damage. Right here is where it goes wrong; back there, yes, possibly, there is a part that can be saved. Reanimated, resurrected by these crumbs of comfort, the writer thinks he has the strength to start over. But first he sends the other out of the room. He has to be alone. The other knows him too well. He cannot have him always bending over his shoulder, trying to be helpful.
Before he was able to divide himself into two and establish this “working relationship,” his judge was out there, unfathomable, unpredictable, promoting him and demoting him according to some grading system which he himself can never get the hang of. We return, like a team of journalists, to those who knew him when. His mother, his teachers, his schoolmates spotted him from way back as one of “those.” They recognized the signs: brooding in corners, taking an undue interest in words, having bizarre aversions to some of the most harmless ones, talking to himself, “awkwardness, shyness, the feeling of being different, superiority.” Back then, though they forget it, these were black marks against him in the Book of Life, pointing to a misfit. How can he say such a thing? Now that he is a literary discovery, what he ignorantly thought were black marks turn out to have been gold stars, and claims to have been his original discoverer are inserted in the record. His mother “knew” from birth, when they brought him in to her: “your high forehead, your look of concentration.” His teacher has never forgotten his school composition—“My First Sorrow”—on the death of his little dog, run over by a train. An amazing sense of language for a child.
When his first book is taken, the editor employed to “handle” him is familiar with the signs: arrogance, false humility, childishness, unwillingness to rewrite. They are all alike, authors; he knows them like the inside of his pocket. The more in fact the neophyte-hero inches forward in achieving recognition, the more he is treated as a specimen of an already familiar category of persons, as though there were nothing special about him except his having entered that category, whose laws are now found to govern his slightest movement, even his movements of rebellion, whether he is conscious of it or not.
Readers are sure they know where he got this or that detail in his book. Those are Mme. Jacquet’s fingers. “Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to tell her.” It’s no use trying to fool them. They have heard those disclaimers before. There is nothing in the book whose sources they cannot sniff out: “Your entire childhood. I saw it…camouflaged, of course.” And his secret motivations for writing, all plain as a pikestaff: “a defense reaction,” “an unconscious need for revenge.”
If he serves tea to visitors, an ordinary tea-kettle turns in the telling and retelling into a samovar, the tea turns into a rare sophisticated blend, and his nervous gestures are “slow, almost solemn,” like a priest lifting a chalice. “You seemed to be officiating,” reports his mother. His father is confident that he has his number too. When the hero bursts happily in to tell him that his book has been accepted, the father, barely looking up from something he is writing: “How much did they take to publish that?”
Being neither “somebody” nor nobody, with an awful logic, the debutant novelist is reduced to an absurdity. His struggles against the claims of others to know him, pin a label on him, file him, are the purest comedy. What is involved is possession, property, the little tickets that are stuck on his work: “Symbolism. Surrealism. Impressionism…. Comic. Tragic. Ontological. Drama. Psychodrama.” One of the funniest passages, a little master-piece written by an angel on the head of a pin (found in Chapter 12), has to do with a false claim check. An elder pontifical critic has found what he calls the main axis of the book, “the point around which the whole work is organized…. That scene in the empty railway station…. It’s a pause. A destroyed center.” But there is no scene in a railway station. The efforts of the hero to retrieve the horrible situation caused by this blunder (which of course nullifies in a flash the critic’s very valuable endorsement) amount to a sort of negotiated surrender. They compromise on a room full of empty benches, in fact a ministry. In an early short story there was a railway station….
Yet the hero, though outnumbered, is still a force to reckon with. The others fear him as a spy concealed among them, pretending to be minding his own business while covertly taking notes. Nor is their surmise mistaken, even if they are usually barking up the wrong tree, as with Mme. Jacquet’s fingers, which really belonged to a friend of his grandmother’s. Knowledge is power, they reckon, and in their view, this note-taking is a power play: he has got them where he wants them, in a book, appropriated them for his own purposes. And the criminal may actually be paid royalties for the stolen property he vends. That is why his attempts to hide must be foiled. He must be brought out into the open, expelled from the circle into the middle. A woman pounces: “You know he too is one.” That is also why he must be enrolled in the regiment of his fellow-writers, who can keep a watch on him if he tries to desert.
All this belongs to the social comedy of the literary life, recognizable to anybody who has ever taken part in it. The humiliations and vicissitudes of the hero are not very important in the final analysis, except as furnishing merriment. They are just occupational hazards the little fellows have to put up with; at least in outward appearance the great are not subject to them.
But Between Life and Death has another dimension, beyond the social, always the cruel playground of comedy: the games people play. In Chapter 8, a book finally begins to write itself, and at once we are on another scale, an immense staircase, as the hero, conquering his fear, ascends from life toward death, and as usual in death he is alone He is going into the temple, like the child Virgin Mary, climbing the steep steps in Titian’s famous Presentation, leaving behind the street crowd and the old woman selling eggs on the bottom stair. For the duration of this chapter, we have left the circle; we no longer hear the desperate pitter-patter of running feet, the thud of ignominious falls on banana peels. Instead, we are in a realm of music. It is a ballet of words, which, as force gathers, turns into a march, a triumphal march, with brass-winds blowing in the orchestra. Then, suddenly, at the height of exultation, there is silence. Total. The tragic hero is dividing into two, to face his alter ego.
Nothing of the sort—a rending of the veil—has been attempted before, and one would have said in advance that it was impossible, short of demonstration, to show how an author composes, that is, to create with words a sort of program music imitating the action of other words as they assemble on a page. It is all very well for a piano to imitate raindrops or paint to imitate foliage, but how can a medium imitate itself? Mme. Sarraute has done it; she does it twice in the novel—again and even more tremendously in the desperate final chapter, where the writer, older, is uncertain of his music, which often sounds to him now like a player piano with him pumping the pedals but which nevertheless swells out with a greater resonance and more complex harmony until it breaks off.
Of course he is writing Between Life and Death. “Take this one to start with, this tiny fragment…that arm like the arm of a jointed puppet, which stretches out, folds, drops, that fist that opens….”
This device, of the novel enclosed within the novel (the Quaker Oats box), might have seemed a mere form, not new either, of literary Op art, if the force of it here at the finale did not close on us like Nemesis. We had half-felt it coming, we were “prepared,” yet we were not sure. So there is only one author, as we suspected, one book, which they all were writing: this book, fabricated in solitude, imperfect, conscious of its blemishes, modest, gigantically boastful, daring to enter the arena, expose itself, and contest its right to survival. Just as the encircled hero stands or falls, finally, by his work, his salient into the world and his redoubt, his last point of retreat, so his creator elects to stand by him, taking him by the hand, ready to fall with him, naked both, saying “We.”
The infinite regress of the Quaker Oats box expresses also the “mystery” of creation, for the nearer you draw to that process, the less you understand it. “Mystery” in ironic quotation marks, yet it is a mystery, despite the fact that ignorant people are content to call it that, knowledgeably—as though in pronouncing the word they had somehow taken possession of the thing itself and were jumping all over it shouting its name—“It’s a mystery, that’s all there is to it. We’re in the presence of a mystery.” The force of repetition kills eternal truths; that conviction obsessed Flaubert, whose taedium vitae took the form of a horror of banality. In this literally double-faced novel, looking inwards and outward, like the year god, mischievous, sly, glinting occasionally with malice, but also somber, tragic, heartshaking in its directness, Mme. Sarraute has undertaken something very bold—the rescue of banality from itself.
Every bromide uttered by her hero and his sycophants proves to be true—specious but true. Whether you feel it as truth or imposture depends a good deal on the tone of voice. Is he preening himself on tearing out and crumpling or is he confessing it, confiding it, mentioning it? There is a whole slithery gamut of nuances. “I have to admit I’m a perfectionist”—what is false about that sentence? Working very carefully, with a pair of tweezers, we may be able to detach the inverted commas from that “confession.” It is rare that we find a direct lie when they are removed—i.e., that the speaker is a shiftless loafer. Usually the inverted commas have sprung up there as the result of mirror—rehearsal or repetition.
In the next-to-the-last chapter, the self-important novelist of the first chapter is back again, older and more munificent with his cliches and precepts. With a shudder, the reader recognizes that voice. ” ‘We should pay attention to no one. To no one. And to nothing. Except to this.’ He lays his hand flat on his chest.” Of course he is right, insofar as what he recommends is possible. Everyone would agree. But, more than being right, this old whore has somehow become rather sympathetic. He too has a deflating, puncturing double, though you would never have imagined it, to hear him talk. She knows that he is finished as a writer, ready for the funeral parlor. He sees her sitting out there in the circle, who all know it too. She may even be his self-effacing consort. They think he has not guessed it himself but they are wrong. How could he not guess when he senses her here, in his plump chest, where he has just reverently laid his hand?
Having kept company with a succession of other, shyer novelists, we are no longer deceived by the facade he showed us when we first met him. At present we see how it is for him, inside, and there no differences exist: all are alike.
In fact for Mme. Sarraute’s hero banality is the irritant that gives rise to the work of art, whose worst enemy, by the way (as we saw in The Golden Fruits), is good taste. The banal, the “common” excite in the artist (as opposed to the connoisseur) a morbid sort of itch which fatally asks to be scratched. A vulgar, drawling pronunciation. Such overheard sentences as “If you keep on like that, your father will like your sister better than you.” Little parcels of living substance around which words begin to dance their ballet or mobilize like iron filings in the presence of a magnet. With a little guidance from the author, a current is made to run from the living substance (which may first appear as an effluvium oozing from a crack in the wall that separates each of us from others) through the dancing, wheeling words, which come out faster and faster, in a jet. He watches them perform, moves them about slightly, withdraws one very gently, like somebody playing jackstraws, so as not to upset the structure, and substitutes another. By preference they should be ordinary words (farewell héros, hérault, erre haut), in working clothes; an unfamiliar word in Mme. Sarraute’s own novels is likely to be found in the dictionary marked “Fam.” (familiar). A local irritation caused by vulgarity produces an excretion, as with the oyster and the pearl, but the stream or spray of words that come from it (the metaphors keep changing) must retain some of the insipidity, flatness, of the original sickly substance.
The name given to the particle of living substance, the germ of the novelist’s novel, is simply la petite chose. If other people try to assign a more precise name to her (“A vulgar accent, that’s all; you mustn’t let it get under your skin”), he is furious; they are taking her away from him, but she is his. As the book progresses, this humble creature, a sort of Cinderella, assumes a more and more important role. Now there are three in the novelist’s workroom: himself, his double, and la petite chose. It is almost a crowd.
By the final chapter, success has altered the relations between them. His double is no longer his plain old friend; he talks in a new stylish way, betraying the time he has been spending in literary circles. “Alive” and “dead” aren’t good enough for him any more. He has his nose in a big grammar—the one the critics use to trip up an author. Sometimes his voice cannot be heard over the voice of the crowd. The worst, the most alarming sign is that he is no longer as critical as he used to be. Don’t worry; just publish it, he says. Everything between them is upside down. Now it is the “I” who is suddenly captious, wants to improve, rewrite, but the “You” brusquely stops him. You’re crazy. Leave it alone. How cynical he now is about the public! “They’ll never notice the difference” is his motto.
Evidently he is lost to the hero, who has no one left to turn to in his extremity. All he can hear is the other writers out there, sneering at him for the enormity of his ambition to join some of them on their pedestals. The wider public seems to have disappeared. It is dark. But he is not totally alone. La petite chose has stuck by him, after all, despite the mistakes he has made with her, painting her up, sending her to the great dressmakers. In fact, they have become closer, since the double has been unfaithful. She has not changed; she still has that stale, musty smell he has a perverse liking for. Feeling her there, he takes heart again. He dares another look at the chapter. And lo, as though recalled, reassured, by the nearness of la petite chose, his double is once more at his side. Not too close, says the author, but not too far off either. They look together at the chapter, examine it for signs of life. It seems to be faintly breathing. Is it the hero’s imagination or does his old friend observe too a fine mist on the pocket mirror placed before its mouth?
The book, naturally, ends on question—the one asked by all books: Am I alive or dead? The answer, if by that is meant the reception, is material for The Golden Fruits. Indeed, the hero of the present work in his most aghast moments could not have foreseen what actually happened. Did it get bad reviews? Good? Mixed? It got no reviews. It came out in the month of May during the Paris general strike, when there were no newspapers or magazines, no television, and radio that consisted of news bulletins. By the time the media were back in service, the spring publishing season was over. Everyone went away for the summer, and when they came back. it was the fall publishing season. Nobody was talking any more about the books of last spring.
What happened in those weeks to Between Life and Death was a common fate. Democratic. Covered by the act-of-God clause in the contract. Any book published in May was killed instantly, without suffering. A good way to go. Some lingered for a while, as a memory, in a few bookstore windows; a few people bought them, probably. A brief notice or so may have followed, in the winter—not reviews but oversights remedied. Perhaps there has been somewhere a real review of Between Life and Death that I missed. All that is sad but funny. It belongs to the comedy of the literary life. What is important is that the book was written. It exists, compact in itself, independently of the sum of its readers and having a kind of self-evidence like a theorem in geometry. Soon somebody will find it, in a train or a hotel or even a bookstore: “I never knew she wrote that.” Though it is less a “born” classic than The Golden Fruits, it is more original, more complex, larger, deeper. Its greatest originality, more striking than its bewitching technical resources but leaning on them for support, is its egalitarian view of its subject. Hence the strange appropriateness of its being killed during the May-June revolutionary events; it would not have minded that. In any case it is an heroic book, as much a deed as an imitation of one, and therefore merits not fame but glory.
July 31, 1969